Baby Talk: Communicating with Your Child -- Roberta Golinkoff, PhD -- 10/2/2003

Last Editorial Review: 10/19/2004

By Roberta Golinkoff
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Nothing beats Baby's first "mama" or "dada," but your child's language skills begin developing long before that memorable day. We talked about talking -- and gurgling and babbling too -- as we looked at communicating with your child, and vice versa. The co-author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards," Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, was our guest on Oct. 2, 2003.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD University: "Bootie Camp: A Four-Week Guide to Baby's First Year." Your instructor is Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, co-author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards" and "How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life." Today she will answer your questions about communicating with your baby. You may send in your questions at any time during the event.

Support for this WebMD University course provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

Welcome to WebMD University, Dr. Golinkoff.

Golinkoff: Thank you.

Member question: Does the baby hear us talking in the womb? If so, does talking to the baby help them develop language any earlier or better?

Golinkoff: From about the beginning of the eighth month they can hear in the womb. That does not mean that you need to go out and spend $300 to buy a pregaphone to speak to your belly. Your baby hears your voice every time you speak. And we know that without fancy equipment, when your baby is born, he or she recognizes your voice and can tell his or her native language from a foreign language.

There is no question that talking to your baby is very important. As soon as your baby is born, it's nice to have little face-to-face vacuous conversations with them. You will notice how they gaze into your eyes and coo and gurgle in response to what you say. The most important thing is to have fun with your baby, and to let them "talk" to you too.

Member question: Does the baby recognize your voice as soon as she is born?

Golinkoff: Yes. Babies do recognize their mother's voice right after they're born, and even stories and songs they have heard while in the womb. But they don't recognize daddy's voice right away. There has to be some benefit for carrying a baby for nine months!

Member question: It seems to me that babies usually spend more time with mama, but say dada first. Why?

Golinkoff: In my view, that's because dad is such an exciting individual for them, and part of that is because dad is not around as much. Dads, the research shows, seem to play a lot with babies. And in more physical ways than moms do. So that makes them pretty exciting.

Member question: Does talking "baby-talk" harm a baby's language development? My husband says we should speak clearly and use only real words so we don't teach the baby to speak silly sounds.

Golinkoff: "Beweave" it or not, baby talk helps babies learn language. Research shows that babies prefer to listen to our silly baby talk from birth. Why is that, you might ask? Well, consider what baby talk sounds like. It tends to be high pitched and very sing-song, and we drag out our vowels, as in "hiiiii baaaaaby." So baby talk stands out in the environment compared to the boring way we talk to other adults.

Babies can pick things out about language faster when they hear baby talk than when they hear the kind of speech we use to each other. So there's no need to try to suppress the baby talk that you do naturally to your baby. You share a lot of positive, happy feelings with your baby when you do it, and your baby enjoys it. So have no guilt about using baby talk.

Member question: Is babbling a baby trying to talk or just babbling?

Golinkoff: When babies babble, they are really not trying to say anything, but that doesn't mean that babbling is not an important precursor to language development. How could we know this? There are cases of babies who have respiratory problems and who have to have a pipe inserted into their trachea so they can breathe. But the pipe bypasses their voice box. That means they can't babble. When the pipe is removed from their trachea and the air passes across their voice box once again, they sound funny; they sound flat and whispery and it takes them time to learn how to use their voices.

So babbling is important practice for using your vocal apparatus in preparing to talk. Sometimes parents are amazed at how loud their babies can be, especially when they're in good restaurants. But this is terrific! The baby is figuring out how to make their voice louder and lower, how to operate their lungs and their tongues and their voice box to produce sounds at different volumes. Applaud it when you hear it. You're getting a free concert.

Member question: Do babies really prefer a higher-pitched voice? Should dad be speaking in his best Mickey Mouse squeak to bond with junior?

Golinkoff: Mothers are not the only individuals who use baby talk. Research shows that dads do it, and even four year olds to two year olds. So if Dad feels like making a fool of himself for the baby and talking like Mickey Mouse that's fine. Babies will love it, just as they love to hear their mothers talk in that high-pitched, singsong way.

Member question: Does singing help develop language? I know I can learn things better if sung (like prayers in Hebrew). Do babies learn language better that way too?

Golinkoff: That's a really interesting question. We know that in the first six months of life babies seem to treat language as if it is music in some ways. Does this mean that you have to go around singing all the time? No, but babies love the repetition in Eensy-Weensy Spider and other songs. And, yes, just as we might not be able to read Hebrew but we can sing some of the songs, babies too may learn some new words in the context of frequently repeated songs. And think how much fun you'll have!

Member question: How does gesturing relate to language?

Golinkoff: Using gestures is not the same as having language. However, sometimes children who have difficulty producing aural language do better when they are taught some signs. The sign language that deaf people use is a real language with all the properties that natural languages have. So when we teach our children, either babies or children with disabilities, some isolated signs we're not teaching them language, because unless we are deaf, we don't know sign language.

There's a wonderful book called "Baby Signs," by Linda Acredolo, PhD, that recommends teaching babies some signs to help them communicate. While it's not the same as teaching kids language it does seem to help them once they start talking. And that makes sense, because every time a hearing parent uses a sign they also say the word. So the child is receiving helpful redundant information.

Member question: I've heard good and bad things about baby sign language. Some say it cuts down on frustration, and therefore crying, in babies, but others say it can delay speech. What do you think?

Golinkoff: When I first read about teaching baby signs I thought it wasn't a good idea, because I worried too that it would delay aural language. But Acredolo's research suggests just the opposite. Babies who are offered signs have larger vocabularies than their peers who have not been offered signs. And it made sense to me when I thought about how the child is being offered redundant information when they get a sign and a word at the same time.

Member question: Is learning language just mimicking?

Golinkoff: Great question. If it were all mimicking, why would kids say, "I have two feets" or "Allison hates mommy?" Surely, they don't hear us say things like that. And some children never imitate, even when we tell them to. No, it's much more complicated. Children have to hear language to analyze it and figure out the rules that underlie the sentences they hear. Children are very active in their process of learning language and it's far from monkey see, monkey do.

Member question: When do babies start to talk?

Golinkoff: Babies start to talk at around 12 months of age, but starting to talk is different than understanding talk. They understand sometimes as many as 100 words by the time they're 10 months of age. Now that's a lot of words, and not every baby will understand that many, but we know, for example, that babies understand the words "mommy" and "daddy" by six months of age, and know that these words are attached to their own mommy and daddy and not just to any man or woman. Pretty impressive!

So don't be fooled; just because your baby isn't saying anything yet doesn't mean that your baby doesn't already know a lot about language. Babies are amazing in how they talk. We describe experiments that show that babies are like little statisticians at 8 months of age, figuring out important properties of the language they hear.

Member question: Does it matter when baby begins to talk - is it indicative of overall intelligence? And does it matter what baby's first words are?

Golinkoff: Babies first words tend to come from a fairly small set. They are usually names of people or pets or sometimes an object that they use a lot, like a ball. We haven't met any babies yet who talked about death and taxes in their first words. They talk about things they can act on and things or people they love.

There is tremendous variability at the beginning in when children start to talk. That is, Irving might have his first word at 10 months, while Sarah doesn't have hers until 18 months. But remember what I said about understanding language. We don't worry too much if a child utters their first word closer to 18 months if it's pretty clear that they "understand" lots of words.

That being said, if your child doesn't have any words that they say by the time they're about 20 months of age, it would be important to have their hearing tested. They should have some words by then.

Member question: My sister says ear infections can slow down speech development. Is this true?

Golinkoff: The answer is yes. But that's when a child has chronic ear infections. It makes sense, if you think about it. When you have an ear infection, there's fluid in your ear. Imagine what it's like when you're underwater at the swimming pool. You can't hear what's being said to you above the water if your head is underneath.

Lots of children are in group-care situations and they tend to get ear infections. That's life. But you should check to make sure that the fluid in your child's ears has cleared by having them looked at again. The goal is to keep her ears fluid free so they can hear well.

Member question: We are expecting our first child next month. My household is bilingual. My in-laws live with us and only speak Spanish. My husband speaks Spanish and English. I primarily speak English with some Spanish. How will this affect our baby learning to talk?

Golinkoff: Growing up in a home in which more than one language is spoken is a gift. If we were in Europe living on the border between several countries we would have effortlessly learned two, three or four languages as children. It's a wonderful thing to be able to speak more than one language, and most Americans can't do that.

The research suggests advantages in thinking for children who speak more than one language. And certainly it will be a great advantage to your child in an increasingly Spanish-speaking country like the United States to know both English and Spanish. And don't worry; your child will sort it all out. Your child will quickly learn to speak Spanish to his grandparents and English to you and will master both languages with native competency, if she is lucky enough to hear them both a lot.

Member question: We are adopting a baby from another country. She will be about a year old when she joins our family. What tips do you have for speaking to her and for getting her language skills in English developed? Should we expect that she'll have speech delays having not been around English speakers her first year?

Golinkoff: Congratulations! What a thrill to adopt a baby. And again, don't worry. It is true that your baby has been in another language environment for a year and has learned a lot about that language. But babies are like sponges, and she will learn the new language she finds herself surrounded by with native competency. It's even unlikely that she will be slower at this than she would be if she were born here. Babies are born to learn language in the same way that spiders are born to spin webs.

Member question: Are speech problems like saying "W" for "R's" or lisps common, and are they "programmed" in at birth? Can parents do anything to avoid them or prevent them, I mean?

Golinkoff: Lots of children start out speaking unclearly, and typically these common substitutions go away by the time they start school. If they don't the school will identify them and offer speech therapy. It's very unlikely that these have a genetic basis. It's probably something the child has computed incorrectly.

What is fascinating, however, is how children can hear the difference between the correct and the incorrect pronunciation, but still say it incorrectly themselves. For example, if a child pronounces R's as W's, as in "mewigowound" and the parent says "mewigowound" the child will often protest and say, "That's not the way to say it!" So sometimes their analysis of the language precedes their ability to get the mouth around the sounds.

These common substitutions generally go away on their own. Just like early stuttering, it's best not to make a big deal about them and not to try and correct the child, because the child will figure it out on his own.

Moderator: What do you think of all of the "educational" products on the market to help parents develop language in their child?

Golinkoff: Our new book, "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards," was written to help parents. Parents feel tremendous pressure to take little children to classes and to buy every educational toy and software advertised to help their babies learn. It's time to, as Susan Powder the diet guru says, "STOP THE MADNESS!" Babies learn best through playful interactions with people who love them. The marketplace has convinced parents who want to do the best job they can that these toys are necessary for helping children to develop their intelligence.

In "Einstein," in a fun way, we review 30 years of research that teaches us that learning takes place best in play -- good old unstructured free play. But play has become a four-letter word. How ironic this is, when, as we say in the book "PLAY EQUALS LEARNING!" In our book we help parents put balance back in their lives and the lives of their children. Save your money! Play with your child. We suggest fun things you can do in your own backyard and in your own living room that will help children learn.

Member question: We are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us, Dr. Golinkoff?

Golinkoff: Parents should trust their instincts. We all know how to talk, and the vast majority of us, especially those of us on the computer, have learned to read, and no one read to us while we were in the womb or pushed flash cards on us when we were babies.

Babies and young children are incredibly resilient and come wired to learn. So have fun! And don't feel any guilt if your child has some free time to sit around and look at their navels. Every situation they're in, they're learning. And you can help just by talking with them, reading with them, and allowing them to interact with peers.

Moderator: Thanks to Roberta Golinkoff, PhD, for sharing her expertise and experience with us. For more information please read "Einstein Never Used Flashcards and How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life," both co-authored by today's instructor, Roberta Golinkoff, PhD, and "The Mother of All Baby Books," by Ann Douglas.

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